Coronavirus and emerging technologies: Should we expect to give up our individual freedoms in favor of collective health?

Coronavirus and emerging technologies: Should we expect to give up our individual freedoms in favor of collective health?

“Data warfare”; if this expression has been commonplace for a few years when it comes to sharing personal data, it seems even more valid today in the context of a global pandemic.

Most of the developed countries are going through the most serious health and societal crisis ever known since the end of the Cold War, or even perhaps since the end of the Second World War.

The first affected by this tidal wave were the Asian countries, followed today by the European countries in the eye of the cyclone, and joined by the American continent which is not immune to the Covid-19 epidemic.

Countries are gradually entering battle order to fight against this invisible enemy. In Asia, the measures taken more than a month ago seem to be finally efficient. China, South Korea and Taiwan, particularly affected, note, at the time of writing, that the number of cases contaminated with Covid-19 as well as the number of deaths attributed to this same virus tends to decrease day by day.


Figure 1, Comparison table of Covid-19 control measures implemented by country


We are faced with a threat that we thought was over, and yet! To fight against this pandemic, against which we seem powerless, each State has chosen its own method. If Europe has bet on measures of containment of the population, in France, in Italy, in Spain or in Great Britain; Asian countries, for their part, have bet on a call for the empowerment of their population without strict confinement (movement that is widely followed elsewhere), large-scale screening measures and monitoring of populations using emerging technologies.

Is strict supervision of the populations, even if it means deviating from the rules of individual freedom in terms of digital surveillance, acceptable?

The question we can ask ourselves today, and in a legitimate way, is the following: is it ethical to sacrifice our individual freedoms for the benefit of collective health?

China, Taiwan and even South Korea have implemented many advanced technological tools, involving big data or artificial intelligence, making it possible not only to follow the epidemic in real time but also to contain its development. Overview and decryption of the technologies used.



China, the great sharing of health data


Big Data intervention

The Chinese government has widely encouraged local companies that hold user data to share it. Whether it’s patient medical data, subscriber communications data via telecoms, or passenger travel data via rail or aviation companies, all shared the data they had in their possession.

At the same time, in Beijing, each inhabitant has a QR code, which identifies all the useful information: postal address, telephone number, transport used … and new, since the beginning of the epidemic, the Pekingese are required to report via this QR code any recent trip to the Hubei region whose capital is Wuhan.

Once this data has been collected on a large scale, once analyzed and cross-referenced, it is possible to know and locate people infected with the virus. Then, in a second step, to follow their movements and to identify people whom they met. So many people potentially carrying the virus can create new sources of contamination, all thanks to big data and mass data collection. (1)


Reinforcement of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is also an essential tool in this epidemiological struggle.


Figure 2, Screening of the Chinese population in public places thanks to artificial intelligence, Credit: Nicolas ASFOURI / AFP

A new kind of detector has appeared in Chinese public places, such as airports and highways. This detector combining facial recognition and infrared detection thermometer makes it possible to remotely measure the body temperature of people present in a crowd at the rate of 200 detections per minute. If the first temperature measurement of an individual turns out to be above normal, the concerned person is isolated to make a second measurement and to confirm or cancel the initial measurement.


However, China faces a new challenge. Indeed, if facial recognition systems prove to be very effective in normal times; during the epidemic, almost the entire Chinese population wears protective masks. Facial recognition systems work by placing points at key locations on the face. Impossible under these conditions for a conventional system to work properly.

To meet this new constraint, the Chinese government has decided to develop new algorithms able to recognize faces despite wearing a mask or any other accessory. By positioning 14 points on the exposed part of the face and connecting them to each other, the system can identify an individual formally.

Still on artificial intelligence, the Chinese giant Alibaba has commissioned its institute Damo Academy to develop an artificial intelligence algorithm capable of diagnosing the coronavirus using a tomography technique. The algorithm has been trained on 5,000 cases found to be infected with Covid-19 and is now able to differentiate a patient infected with the virus from a sample of patients suffering from other viral pneumopathies. After a series of validation tests, this method proved to be reliable in 96% of cases.

Real revolution and assistance tool, since the program is able to diagnose a patient in less than 20 seconds! Whereas a doctor spends 10 to 15 minutes in his office.


South Korea, anticipation of a health crisis


South Korea has been preparing for an epidemic since 2015 when a businessman imported the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS) into the country. This is why, as soon as the epidemic broke out in the South Asian region, South Korea chose to launch a massive production of screening tests to meet the needs of the population.

It is with a combined method of screening and tracing the population that South Korea has chosen to act.


Screening at all costs


“Our tremendous ability to do screening {ed.} Allows us to identify patients early and minimize the harm”Korean Health Minister Kim Ganglip told reporters.

Figure 3, Photo of a screening drive in South Korea, © Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

The containment of contaminated people is more individualized, targeted and precise. Then, by going back chronologically in the daily lives of infected people, as it was the case in China, and by tracking their movements, the system made it possible to quickly detect people who came into contact with the person carrying the virus, isolate them on an ad hoc basis and offer them tests. Relatives of all those infected are thus systematically sought before being offered a screening test. (2)


Screening is allowed thanks to a well-established organization. Individual consultation booths have been installed in major cities, allowing more than 20,000 screenings a day, offered free of charge on presentation of a prescription. The test is carried out in less than 10 minutes and the patient receives the results within 24 hours by SMS.


A website created to track contaminated cases around you

In parallel, a geolocation system for infected people is available on the website. The map lists people infected in real time: in red people infected for less than 24 hours, in yellow from 24 hours to two days and in green for up to nine days. Text messages are even sent to the Korean population when a new case is detected near their home or work.


Figure 4, Presentation of the site


In order to protect the population, the South Korean government has even decided to go further, stating that anyone not wishing to share their health data faces up to two years in prison.


Taiwan, the immediate reaction


Despite its geographic location very close to China, Taiwan has only a hundred infected and one dead. The international community agrees that Taiwan has shown exemplary management of the crisis.

The first steps were taken without waiting for the publication of WHO recommendations. Various measures have been put in place: taking the temperature of each person entering Taiwanese territory, general quarantine for groups of suspicious travelers, closing of air links with regions at risk, education of the general public, fight against disinformation, application strict policies for schools and businesses, among other measures and most importantly, connection between social security databases, immigration services and customs to link information and track people who are infected. (2) (3) (4)


Whatever the method adopted by the countries; three common points emerge:

  • Centralized health systems which have a very wide possibility of action
  • The choice of large-scale screening for Covid-19 virus
  • Use of emerging technologies to collect data, analyze it, follow developments by region and contain the epidemic by specific measures


If, at the outset, some voices were raised and rebelled against these practices of collecting personal data which went against individual freedoms, particularly in South Korea, they very quickly faltered in the face of the effectiveness of the measures. Today, few people question these decisions. The vast majority of the population says they feel protected from the virus and believes that their government has managed the crisis well.

If Taiwan and Korea are democracies, respectful of individual freedoms, taking into account a form of collective interest, greater than temporary individual constraints, makes it easier to accept such arrangements.



Could we think of using such measures in France?


Not to mention the disclosure of health data on information sharing platforms or on geolocation websites, at a more limited level, some employers are asking the question because it is their duty to protect their employees and ensure their security. However, the latter are also required to respect the privacy of the persons concerned, in particular with regard to health data. These data are protected by the GDPR and the provisions of the Public Health Code. (5)

If Italy indicated on March 2 that it was necessary to refrain from automatically processing personal data, in particular health data, it is the responsibility of employees to inform their management of the risk for themselves and the risk for other employees. (6)


Caution is advised in France on the subject of the generalized collection of health data for private companies that welcome the public, far from the measures practiced in Asia.

The Ministry of Labor having asked employees to keep their management informed of any trip to a risk zone, the employers seem to be able to inform the other collaborators of the existence of a possible case of contamination. As for the disclosure of the patient’s identity to other employees, the question has not yet been resolved.

There is therefore no question, for the moment, in France, of temporarily giving up certain individual freedoms for the benefit of the common good, as distrust with emerging technologies and our institutions remains widespread.


Mathilde PASKO,

TechToMed Consultant




(1) Stéphane Lagarde, Coronavirus: in China, new technologies to fight the disease, RFI,


(2) Gilles Babinet, Technology to fight against the coronavirus: the case of Taiwan, Institut Montaigne,


(3) Julie Kern, Coronavirus: how did Taiwan and South Korea manage to contain the epidemic?, Futura Santé


(4) Dorian Malovic, Taiwan manages the coronavirus in an exemplary manner, La Croix,


(5) Florence Chafiol Roxane Blanc-Dubois, Does the war against the coronavirus justify all the processing of personal data, particularly in the workplace? August Debouzy,


(6) Coronavirus (Covid-19): reminders from the CNIL on the collection of personal data, the CNIL,